Dougie Hamilton, Jordan Caron to Play Bigger Roles and Other Thoughts on the Eve of Free Agency

Dougie Hamilton, Jordan Caron to Play Bigger Roles and Other Thoughts on the Eve of Free AgencyThe offseason continues to fly by, with one big event after another. The draft is in the books, and the Bruins development camp is already under way, while free agency is set to open Sunday. Those key happenings provide some excitement in the dreary months between games, and the passage of each of them brings us that much closer to the start of another season.

They also provide for plenty of fodder for questions to fill the latest edition of the Bruins Mailbag. As always, I'd like to thank all the readers who sent in questions and apologize in advance if I wasn't able to get to yours. Please keep submitting your questions, and I'll answer as many of them as I can throughout the offseason.

Do you think [Dougie] Hamilton will make the Bruins roster this season, and if so, who does he replace on the blue line in the top six D-men? Secondly, if he does make it, who do you pair him with on the back line?
– Phil Wrye via Facebook

The Bruins have made it pretty clear that they expect Hamilton to make the leap to the big club this season, and they've left room for him to do so. With Joe Corvo, Greg Zanon and Mike Mottau all headed to unrestricted free agency, Hamilton won't have to push anyone out of the top six to win a job.

Assuming all goes as planned and Hamilton earns that spot with a strong camp, settling on the pairings could be a bit more complicated. While Hamilton may get some occasional shifts with Zdeno Chara just for the experience of playing alongside the Bruins captain, Boston won't ask Hamilton to play on the top pairing as a 19-year-old. He will be better served in a more limited role, likely starting out on the third pairing. The problem there is that both Hamilton and Adam McQuaid are right-handed shots used to playing on their strong side. To put them together, one of them would have to switch to the left. That may be a bit much to ask from a rookie already adjusting to the speed and intensity of the pro game.

McQuaid could possibly make the switch to the left side, but a better alternative may be to play Hamilton with Andrew Ference. That could put Chara back with Johnny Boychuk and McQuaid with Dennis Seidenberg. Hamilton would get to stay on his strong side and have the bonus of learning from a steady veteran partner like Ference. Claude Julien also likes to mix and match his pairs frequently, so Hamilton will likely get some opportunities to play with other partners as well, but spending the bulk of his time with the steadying influence of Ference may be the best solution.

Hey Douglas, with free agency due to start and Tim Thomas sitting out for this coming season, now that he's waived his no-trade clause, who do you see as teams interested in trading for him, and will the Bruins add any free agents if they do trade Thomas? I'm aware of small market teams needing to reach that $54 million bottom end of the salary cap. Any word that one of them will be takers to abide the cap rules?
– Dwayne Milne, Spearfish, South Dakota (formerly from Gloucester)

First off, Dwayne, glad to see you're still keeping tabs on your team even though you've left the area, and I hope that I can help keep you informed on the Bruins from afar. Thomas' no-trade clause actually expires on July 1 anyway, so his waiving of it is really a moot point at this juncture. That gesture gave the Bruins a chance to try to move his contract at the draft, but obviously nothing came about at that time.

You are correct that a team seeking to reach the cap floor is the only real option as a trading partner for the Bruins. The problem is the uncertainty of what the new collective bargaining agreement will look like. Will the cap floor be lowered considerably or even eliminated all together? A $5 million cap hit to put toward the floor without having to spend a dime of actual money could be very attractive to a team like the Islanders, Phoenix, Nashville — if they can't retain Ryan Suter — or Columbus, if they don't take a lot of salary back in a Rick Nash trade. But I think the Bruins may have to wait for the CBA talks to sort themselves out before any of those teams will look to take on his cap hit.

With that said, the Bruins aren't likely to have Thomas' cap hit off the books when free agency opens, so I don't see it having a big effect on their pursuit of any free agents. For what it's worth, Peter Chiarelli said Friday that he expects to "be quiet" in free agency this year. I think the Bruins may eventually add a veteran seventh defenseman and some depth up front, but probably not until later in the summer when there may be some bargains available after the July 1 rush.  

What are the chances of the Bruins going for Justin Schultz from Anaheim?
– Steph Phillips via Twitter (‏@brooksiebruin19)

It looks like the Bruins will have to content themselves in adding just one talented and heavily hyped blue line prospect this year, as I don't believe Boston will be home to both Dougie Hamilton and Schultz. TSN has reported that Schultz narrowed his choices to five teams, with Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa and the Rangers still in the running and a final decision expected Saturday.

Schultz is from Kelowna, British Columbia, which may give the Canucks an edge in the competition, although the presence of fellow former Wisconsin Badger Ryan McDonagh on the Rangers' blue line could give New York a shot, while Brian Burke has had plenty of success luring college free agents to the Leafs. The smart money should probably be on Edmonton, though. The Oilers give Schultz the best chance to play right away with their needs on defense, plus he gets to stay in Western Canada and could help build something special with the young talent Edmonton has up front with Jordan Eberle and No. 1 overall picks Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov. The Oilers have also gone all out in the recruiting blitz, with the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey calling Schultz on the Oilers' behalf. That's a tough pitch to pass up.

The Bruins surprised many by landing Blake Wheeler in a similar situation back in 2008 when he left the University of Minnesota after not coming to terms with Phoenix, but I don't think Boston will see a repeat of that with Schultz.

With Benoit Pouliot leaving, who can we expect to be his replacement? Jordan Caron? Or do the B's have their eye on any UFAs that could fill the spot?
– Mike Bahm via Facebook

Caron definitely has the inside track on that final position on the third line, which is expected to feature Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley in the other spots. Things could obviously change if Nathan Horton suffers a setback in his recovery from the concussion that ended his season last January, but at this point it appears the Bruins will head into the season with some familiar combinations. If everyone is healthy, Milan Lucic and Horton would flank David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron would remain between Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin, and the fourth line would again feature Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton. That leaves Kelly and Peverley on the third line, with Caron the top candidate to round out that unit.

He will have to fend off a challenge from some internal candidates, with prospects Jared Knight and Ryan Spooner presenting the biggest threats. It's also possible someone like Chris Bourque or Lane MacDermid could earn a spot in camp. Even if they may be better suited to fourth-line roles, Julien could slide someone like Paille up to the third line if they impress him enough to stick. If Caron plays in camp the way he did late in the regular season, he should be able to hold off any such challenge, and those other youngsters will be battling to stay up as the extra forward in Boston or competing for playing time in Providence.

While Chiarelli has indicated the Bruins aren't looking to make any major moves in free agency, I wouldn't completely rule out any additions from outside the organization later this summer. If a bargain presents itself, the Bruins could add a veteran up front for some additional depth, competition and injury insurance.

Why only one year for Tuukka Rask? What are they planning?
– Erin Stanton via Facebook

While both Rask and the Bruins want to keep the netminder in Boston for a long time, it seems the one-year deal was agreeable to both sides at this point. It gives Rask a chance to prove he can be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL, and, if he lives up to expectations this year, he will have far greater leverage for a more lucrative long-term deal next summer.

The Bruins, meanwhile, will get some peace of mind before making such an investment if Rask can prove this year that he's up to the challenge of being the starter and can hold up physically to that workload over the course of a full season. Barring any changes in the new CBA, Rask will still be a restricted free agent next year, so the Bruins will still retain his rights.

There is risk for both sides, though. Rask will get a much bigger deal if he performs well and stays healthy, but he doesn't get any security beyond this year if he falters. The Bruins will have to pay a premium to lock him up long-term next year if he plays as well as expected, and they'll have to do that with Seguin, Lucic and Marchand as well, since all are up for new deals as RFAs at the same time.

Will [Malcolm] Subban play this year?
– Renaud Bourbonnais via Facebook

Subban has a bright future ahead of him, but he will need at least a few more years of development. He will head back to Belleville in the Ontario Hockey League this season and likely play there again the following year. After that, some time in the AHL will likely be needed.

That's the path for most goalies. It's possible that Subban will be poised and skilled enough to skip some of those steps, but there's no need to risk his development by rushing him. Rask is just 25 and has not even entered the prime of his career, so the Bruins can afford to be patient with Subban for a few years.

Have questions for Douglas Flynn’s mailbag? Leave them in the comments section below, send them to him via Twitter @douglasflynn or send them here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week. Be sure to check back to see if your question was answered.

Photo via Flickr/slidingsideways

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